Thursday, July 23, 2009

Quakers and Diversity. A quick comment and a little advice

Some people reject Christianity when they come to believe that the religion has betrayed their values. Perhaps they see bigotry, intolerance and an abusive use of power in the religion of their childhood and they seek to escape that and to make a spiritual journey toward a more healing and loving tradition. That is not my story because that was never my Christianity.

There is more than one Christianity! There are multitudes of denominations and sects, all with their own perspectives (often competing and contrary) so it is pretty crazy for any of us to attempt to define the religion or to assume that our own experience of Christianity is definitive. There's no way anyone can turn their noses up at "Christians" without hearing first what kind of Christianity they espouse. I did not grow up in a narrowly defined Christianity that emphasized biblical literalism and/or that used its power to foster bigotry, violence, or patriarchy. My experience of Christianity was quite the opposite with an emphasis on social justice and equal rights for marginalized peoples and for women. The Christianity I grew up in was pacifist and post-colonial. Its study demanded biblical criticism not biblical literalism.

Some reject Christianity because they came to believe that it was oppressive, limiting, and judgmental. I stopped being a Christian in any orthodox sense but I never rejected it and do not feel injured by it. I just added more layers to my spirituality through my experiences with Neo-Paganism and comparative religion studies. When I read various essays by bloggers who weave Eastern traditions with Christian traditions, I see similarities with my own experiences as a Theosophist and Pagan. There are many of us who grew up in a very liberal Christian tradition that encouraged appreciation for different cultural perspectives and who have added onto our childhood religion through study of other traditions. That's not rejection. That's universalism.

I think it is awfully important to consider the differences in our backgrounds when we come together in community. Love requires us to take care and to move slowly. It requires us to listen unselfishly and deeply.

Many of us who come to Friends do so from other traditions, both Christian and non-Christian. Since the Religious Society of Friends began, Christianity has diversified tremendously. Many of come to Friends from broadly diverse Christian backgrounds. Since the Religious Society of Friends began in England and grew in America, there has been enormous change in our knowledge of and access to other religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions from all around the world. Many of us come to Friends from broadly diverse non-Christian backgrounds.

There are Christian Friends and there are non-Christian Friends. We might do well to listen to each other a bit more carefully to avoid hurting each other unnecessarily.

Here are some questions for Christian Friends.

1. Is this person a non-Christian? If so, do they have a Christian background or do they come to us from an entirely different spiritual or philosophical background? Do I truly know enough about their background to make judgments about their intentions?

2. If this person is a former Christian, do I know why they now no longer call themselves Christian? Which Christian perspective (out of the multitudes) is in their past and how does that affect their relationship to christ-centered language? Was their experience with their version of Christianity predominantly positive or negative? What care and sensitivity does this individual require to encourage their best gift of love?

Here are some questions for non-Christian Friends

1. When you hear Christian language, are you overlaying your own frustrations with judgmental Christians onto your interpretation of the current speaker's words? Can you take the time to hear this speaker as a precious individual ? Are you remembering that there are many Christian perspectives or are you making stereotyping judgments?

2. How familiar are you with scriptural language as it is often used by Friends? Can you make better interpretations of their meaning if you delve more deeply into this poetic language as a foundational aspect of historical Friends' witness or are you confusing this language with the usage of Christian language from other historical traditions?

For all Friends encountering someone whose background differs from your own:

1. Can you, like the Native American man who was moved by John Woolman's ministry, hear where their words come from? Can you discern kindness and good intention in this speaker even when their words offend or confuse? ( William Penn said, "Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.")

2. Do you really want to injure or reject this person before you who wants to belong in your society and who has exposed their difference to you in trust?

Maybe others can add to this preliminary list of questions.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Yes, so many Christianities--and so many contradictory of the others! In my childhood,growing up Baptist, we were taught it went all the way back to John the B.:-) and was mostly the true faith, though some other Christians were included like the weird Pentecostals, despite their bizarre belief in tongues.

Of course, later I discovered I was much closer in faith to Catholicism than most Baptists and that there are over 210 different denominations within the Baptist fold alone, most of them contradicting each other!

And early Quakers differentiated themselves from all the "hierling" false Christianities.

And there are now so many Neo-Paganisms too. From the Christian paganism of Lewis and L'Engle and Tillich to your own view of Neo-Paganism to the various "traditional" Paganisms to all the New Age Paganisms to the European Neo-paganism which Tillich so strongly rejected, etc.

We do live in a world of endless Baskin and Robbins flavors!

My big question for you today, Hystery:

What do you mean by stating you are a Theosophist?

I understood very well what that means when I explored that religion/philosophy
years ago, and I have academic understanding, but its
unclear to me what your
view is (since in my understanding, Theosophy with its strong Neo-Platonic basis is very contradictory to nearly all Paganism of all types).

Yes, I remember, you said you "contain mulitudes":-)
But what of this Theosophist side of your faith?


Hystery said...

Dear Daniel,

There are indeed so many different flavors! I grew up hearing about the subtle differences between one denomination and the next and there were also the jokes. There are a whole lot of ministers in my family. One great-great uncle, a Presbyterian, joked about his Calvinist church that "if ever your ice box breaks, you can keep your ice cream cold by leaning it against the Presbyterian church."

I joined the Theosophical Society many years ago while working on my graduate degree. I can't remember now why I did but it was awfully helpful since my subject of study, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was a Theosophist and her interest in the Goddess flows from that association. Theosophists are also a very diverse group with mixtures of New Age, Eastern spirituality, Neo-Paganism, Christianity and Spiritualism just for starters. They often act as a focal point in my study of the development of post-Christian spiritual society in nineteenth-century America.

In the back of each issue of Quest, the journal published by the American branch of the Theosophical Society, you'll find a statement of the Theosophical World View and the Freedom of Thought Resolution.

Theosophists tend to believe that the universe and all within it are interrelated and part of an interdependent whole.

That all that exists "from atom to galaxy" is part of a pervasive Reality displayed in the "purposeful, ordered, and meaningful processes of nature..."

That every living being has unique value and that recognition of this requires reverence for life. Individuals find truth within themselves requiring "respect for every religious tradition."

"The Theosophical Society imposes no dogmas, but points toward the source of unity beyond all differences. Devotion to Truth, love for all living beings, and commitment to a life of active altruism are the marks of a true Theosophist."

J.A. Seeker said...

Can't help but wonder if you've been reading my blog since what you write about seems to be so dead on my experience. If you have, and for what it's worth, wanted to let you know, that in hindsight, I never really "abandoned" Christianity, I abandoned the dogmatic teaching promulgated by the Catholic Church. But the heart of Christ's teachings, you know, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, I've learned through my Zen Buddhist practice, that I never really stopped trying (and failing constantly)to live them. I suspect that even the most "Non-Theist" Friend out there, is probably attracted to Quakerism, not by faith but by practice. So although if asked, I will answer that I am a Christian, for me at least what is probably a more accurate statement is that I am a practicing Christian. (Yes, and I am aware that in order to be moved to "practice" something, you probably need to have "faith" in something, but hopefully you get my drift.)

Also, don't underestimate the power of the Ministry in your writing. Thanks for your blog.

Hystery said...

J.A. Seeker,

I did, in fact, read your blog post commenting on someone asking you if you were a Christian although to be honest, I was not thinking of it when I wrote this. I'm glad you commented. I see now that your blog was there in the back of my mind. I read so many blogs and hear so many people discuss their understanding of Christianity from the post-Christian perspective that all of it was a kind of vague composite in my head. My own experience sounds a bit similar to your own although I'm not sure that I would call myself Christian if asked. I am a "practicing Christian" although certainly not an orthodox one. I've just been thinking that I never rejected Christianity because the kind of Christianity I always practiced would never have minded that I seek for Truth in other traditions. My spirituality is a bit polyamorous that way. ;-)

J.A. Seeker said...

"My spirituality is a bit polyamorous that way."

Seems that you are saying that you are a Universalist. I am too! :)

Peter Bishop said...

This is a very different experience of Christianity that mine (at least in some ways) but one I'm really glad to hear about. Thank you than you thank you for you calm, centered, and open-hearted voice in this discussion within Quakerism.

ellen abbott said...

I was raised an Episcopalian. Even in my earliest memories of church and sunday school what they were preaching/teaching did not ring true. One god but worshiped in three entities while they decried polytheism; that god made all but would love you, take you only if you accepted Jesus as your personal saviour and therefore condemning all others who were also god’s creations to hell; the whole copncept of hell and the devil was a total contradiction to the god of love and compassion that the religion espoused; the whole concept of original on earth could a new born baby be a sinner; the attitude that we were not to think, that they would tell us what to think. These are just a few of the things I had trouble with. Before abandoning Christainity completely I did explore several other denominations but these core teachings were the same in all...god is love but he hates everybody who is not like me. By the time I was 20, I no longer considered myself a Christian. I began my study of other religious traditions and the history of and development of religion, of myth and tradition. I don’t know what I am...a universalist, a deist, a pagan, a theosophist, a walker in beauty? I don’t do religion. Religion has nothing to do with god or spirituality. It is a tool to control man. It is rigid and unyeilding. It murders in the name of the very god that abhors murder. It marginalizes and demonizes every reflection of god or the source that does not fall into it’s narrow confines. And I believe that Christianity and it’s younger brother Islam are the worst offenders. I don’t like being told that someone will pray for me (and I have been told this a lot) because I don’t share their vision. I am not god/dess less because I have no religion nor am I faithless. I don’t need some holy book telling me that murder is wrong, that theft is wrong, that hate is wrong. I know it already because the kingdom of heaven is within me. I see that the divine spark that is in me is in everyone and everything equally. And all is beloved.

Well, now that I’ve typed this out I don’t know if it really relates to your post but I do enjoy your blog.

Hystery said...

Ellen, my dad was a minister of first the Methodist Church and then the United Church of Christ. I never met any clergypeople who believed in the things you mention until I was an adult. I suppose there were members of our congregations who believed these things but I understood Christianity through the lens of the liberal seminaries my father attended. A good portion of what I write here reflects this early education. Dad used to say there was a profound gulf between the educated clergy and their congregations. He used to get pretty angry with other clergy who maintained the positions you decry. "They went to the same seminaries I did," he would exclaim. "They know what they are teaching is bullshit!" He often calls the church "The society for the preservation of the clergy."

Matt Stone said...

It is nice to meet a Pagan who can appreciate the diversity of Christianity. Yes, it is extremely diverse, especially when it is explored as a world movement. There are things all Christians affirm as essential - the centrality of Christ for instance - but there are many more things which are more peripheral and more optional. When speaking of "what Christians believe" and "what Christians practice" it is helpful to have an appreciation for what is more perpheral and what is more essential to Christian belief and practice

Hystery said...

Matt, thanks for visiting. I certainly agree that I have met few Pagans who have a sophisticated knowledge of Christian histories and theologies. They are quick to assume that the Christianity they left or the Christianity they see splashed around the media is the end of the story. Big mistake. We miss so much good in each other when we fail to listen closely.

It would also be nice to meet more Christians who begin to comprehend the vast diversity of Christianity. For that matter, it would be nice to meet more Pagans who understood Pagan diversity as well. I find that people tend to think their own perspective and history sums up the human experience. Very annoying. Very counterproductive. But then I'm being very cranky and judgmental. Comes from blogging right after grocery shopping.

Kristy Shreve Powers said...

Your father's comment that the church is "The society for the preservation of the clergy" made me laugh out loud. Thank you for that.

But I think this is the belief of many people who have rejected Christianity. They look at the church leaders' behaviors and attitudes and are so disillusioned with them that they reject religion wholesale. Hmm, maybe in the previous sentences I should replace "many people" with "me" and "they" with "I." :)

I am attracted to Quakerism in part because there is no authority figure who is purported to speak for God more than another person. People are more credible to me when they are involved in activities or institutions that will not give them official kudos, advancements, or authority for their works. It's refreshing to be in a group of people who shy away from special positions and recognition. Though I suppose one could get into these "thankless" activities to such an extreme that it became a feeling of righteousness or martyrdom.

Hystery said...

Kristy, your comment also reminded me of an expression my father frequently employed (particularly after working in endless meetings).
"For God so loved the world that He didn't send a committee."

I find myself saying this (muttering this) when I'm working with a group of people toward a common goal. (Well, "common goal" may be a misnomer in many cases).

It will take me time to get used to the Quaker organizational process. I've never been a team player. :-)

Kristy Shreve Powers said...

I laughed right out loud again.